Last week, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Women’s Voices for Earth (WVE) against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Commissioner of the FDA. The facts of this case date back to 2011, when EWG filed a Citizen Petition with FDA “requesting that the FDA take immediate action to protect the public from formaldehyde-containing keratin hair straighteners.” FDA replied on or about September 6, 2011 with a tentative response to the Citizen Petition, explaining that it was unable to reach a decision due to “competing priorities.” Dissatisfied with this response, on December 13, 2016 EWG and WVE filed a complaint in federal court alleging that FDA violated the Administrative Procedure Act; the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act; and its own regulations by failing to formally respond to the Citizen Petition.
After the complaint was filed by EWG and WVE, on March 29, 2017, FDA issued a formal response granting EWG’s request to review the appropriateness of a ban on these products, but denying EWG’s request to initiate rulemaking before FDA completed its analysis of the formaldehyde in the keratin hair straighteners. (The issued opinion states that FDA issued a formal response to the Petition on March 29, 2018. We assume this is a typo, and the formal response was actually issued on March 29, 2017.) Based on the response by FDA, which included a denial to their Citizen Petition, plaintiffs amended the complaint to request that the court direct “Defendants to grant the Petition by a date certain.” Defendants moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) and for failure to state a claim under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). Because the court found no jurisdiction, it did not discuss the merits of the 12(b)(6) arguments.
As a quick refresher from Constitutional Law, an organization can assert standing on its own behalf, on behalf of its members, or both. The organization must show “actual or threatened injury in fact that is fairly traceable to the alleged illegal action and likely to be redressed by a favorable court decision.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals v. U.S. Dep’t of Agric., 797 F.3d 1087, 1093 (D.C. Cir. 2015). Organizations can also assert associational standing. This requires a showing that “(1) at least one of their members would have standing to sue; (2) the interests they seek to protect are germane to the organizations’ purposes; and (3) neither the claim asserted not the relief requested requires the participation of individual members.” Sierra Club v. EPA, 754 F.3d 995, 999 (D.C. Cir. 2014).
The court ultimately concluded that the plaintiffs failed to allege sufficient injury to constitute standing, whether organizational or associational. With respect to organizational standing, plaintiffs argued that they were injured because they were forced to expend considerable funds on lobbying efforts and educational activities to warn consumers about these products. In dismissing these arguments, the court noted that an injury to an organization’s interest has to be more than expending resources to educate its members, unless there is an actual inhibition of daily operations. Neither organization sufficiently alleged any inhibition to its daily operations sufficient to constitute a concrete injury to their interests. While the court acknowledged that a significant amount of funds were spent on lobbying, it noted that such efforts alone could not constitute sufficient injury to result in standing. To hold otherwise would allow lobbyists on any issue to take the government to court.
The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the expenses put into their educational activities were sufficient to constitute an injury, noting that educating its members is the exact work the organizations are in the business of doing. Even if they diverted resources to this issue, the organizations did not allege that such expenditures constituted operational costs beyond those normally expended. Without such a showing, the court found that the suit amounts to no more than an assertion of generalized grievances.
The WVE argued separately that it had associational standing to sue on behalf of its members. Specifically, WVE listed three members who suffered significant past injuries allegedly caused by exposure to formaldehyde in hair-straightening products. The issue, from the court’s perspective, was that these instances of past harm did not establish a real and immediate threat that the harm would recur. Nor did the plaintiffs allege that the injured individuals would likely use or be exposed to the formaldehyde-releasing hair straightening products in the future. These allegations, the court determined, were insufficient to establish standing for the prospective injunctive relief sought by the plaintiffs.
This case has potential implications for industry. To the extent that a company is being sued by an association, this case might be used as a sword to dismiss a complaint for lack of standing. For those companies with products similarly targeted by associations, this case also sends a message that such associations cannot dictate FDA regulatory policy through litigation.